An exploration of the sacred feminine and its initiatory function in Germanic paganism
Rites of initiation fascinate us: ceremonies wherein mysterious workings of another world alter the spiritual being of man, and in turn how he relates to the world, by exposing him to a glimpse of the sacred reality before which the material world is a veil. Ancient mystery schools, such as the rites of Eleusis in Greece or the Roman cults continue to draw our attention, and many a modern heart longs for a peek into the nature of these rites of passage. Evidence – both literary and figurative – from the germanic sphere also points towards initiatory rituals practices by the northern branch of the indoeuropean family tree.
We tend to conceive of these rituals as entirely otherworldly – something mysterious beyond our imagination, beyond the scope of our knowledge entirely – and thus only dream of the mysterious acts done, the substances partaken of and magical words spoken during these rites.
In this series of articles, it is my argument that these rites of initiation may not be so far away – nor as mystical – as they at first may seem, and that some of them are even hiding in relatively plain sight in many of our sacred texts: ignored because of their simplicity, and maybe because of our longing for the mystical. Further, it is my opinion that women had a specific initiatic function in these rituals, which I hope the following texts may illustrate. The essay will first examine the different variants of this mythic theme throughout the indoeuropean sphere, and then move on to a closer examination of the initiatic and priestly role of the feminine in Germanic society.
The Germanic hero’s journey
“Victory-runes you shall know, if victory you want”
“Beer I offer, noble warrior: with magic stirred and mighty power”, says the valkyrie Sigrdrifa (“victory-maker”) to Sigurd after he wakes her from an enchanted sleep. The story of Sigurd Dragonslayer is one of the oldest and most popular germanic heroic myths, comparable in stature and magnitude to Homer’s Iliad. The story revolves around Sigurd, whom as a young man loses his father, the king, and lives in a foreign land, ignorant of his noble pedigree. At some point, Sigurd comes by stories of a dragon guarding a mighty treasure, and approaches a smith to forge a sword wherewith he can slay the beast. The smith forges him the blade, and Sigurd goes on to kill the creature. After the heroic deed, a drop of the beast’s blood accidently slips into his mouth. Upon ingesting the dragonblood, Sigurd finds that he can understand the language of birds, the mystical language. His new-found winged helpers tell him of a valkyrie, slumbering in an enchanted sleep in a grove nearby. The valkyries, in Norse mythology, are powerful female spirits, ebodiments of battle and heroism. They are the handmaidens of the goddess Freyja, and retrieve the fallen from the battlefield and ride with them to the divine realm. Sigurd seeks the valkyrie out, wakes her, and is given a sacred drought as an initiatory gift, with the words written at the beginning of this paragraph. The valkyrie then arms Sigurd with spiritual power, and teaches him how to use the runes for various purposes, notably to gain victory in battle, turn the minds of men, deliver children safely, and heal the sick.
The central themes in Sigurd’s story is as follows: Sigurd is a prince, but unaware of his own royal identity. He dwells in a foreign land, wherein he encounters a smith. The smith tests the hero, forges him a sword (1), and tells Sigurd of a sleeping dragon hoarding treasure. Sigurd seeks the dragon out, defeats it and is lead to a mystical female character, in this version a valkyrie. He wakes the valkyrie up, who rewards his heroism by offering him a drink of sacred mead. When Sigurd is offered the mead, he is simultaneously initiated into the knowledge of the runes.
Odin’s encounter with the jötun, his union with Gunnljód, and lastly, his partaking of the sacred mead of poetry, follows a strikingly similar pattern to that of Sigurd. He travels, disguised, to a foreign and strange land. Therein, he passes several tests, and is met by a mystical female figure. He is embraced by this figure, who then lets him taste a sip of sacred mead, a drought with the power to bestow secret knowledge.
There are several versions of the above myths. All do, however, follow the same narrative key-points. The myths begin with the hero, or god, being in an unfamiliar situation. Sigurd is ignorant of his royal status, and serves in the court of another king. Odin travels to jötunheim, the homeland of his enemies. This first theme represents the crossing of a threshold, a passage through the portal between the known and unknown, of familiarity and the unfamiliar. The first step in the initiatory journey is therefore to leave the safety of home and stability of familiarity behind. After having crossed the first threshold, the hero or god is subject to tests of eloquence and perseverance. Their ability to undergo hardship and manifest courage and cunning is honed. Sigurd must convince Regin to forge him the sword and then kill the dragon, and Odin must perform superhuman feats in his service to the jötun, and then demonstrate his eloquence at the jötun-court. After having persevered in their trials, the hero, or deity, passes yet another threshold: the threshold between the mundane and the spiritual. Upon this passage, they encounter the female initiator. After having slain Fafnir, Sigurd meets Sigrdrifa. Odin, after having won a symbolic, poetic battle in the castle of the jötun, is met by Gunnljód. In the spiritual realm, in the company of the female initiator, they both receive a sacred drink, and are by the partaking thereof initiated into sacred knowledge.
The myths of Odin and Sigurd should be seen as reflections of one another, and as initiatory guidelines with divine sanction. One takes place in the realm of spirit, the other in the world of matter. Odin’s initiation lays down a set pattern for initiation, which is manifested in Sigurd’s legend in the physical world. We can see Odin as being the first initiate. Odin, by his attainment, establishes a Germanic formula of initiation that he later teaches to humans, and which Sigurd embodies. The Germanic tribes of old replicated the initiatory formula of Odin in order to partake of sacred knowledge and taste the sacred mead. There are adamant sources pointing to rites of initiation being common in the Germanic cultures, and that these specifically involved replications of Odin’s adventures. These rites probably involved undergoing severe physical and mental tests, journeys away from home, the practice of magic, and the reception of sacred mead from a female priestess. There is an exceedingly interesting quote from the bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson, who in the 13th century wrote that “I never learned the art of poetry by the water-source. I never performed galdr, and I never sat below a hanged man”. Now, why would Bjarni, as a christian, take care to mention having abstained from these activities? Because they are exactly what a pagan initiate would do.
There are several ways we can distill the mythic wisdom in the myths examined in this article and use it as nourishment for our own spiritual growth. One such level of analysis is to see the different heroes as an individual, the female initiator as the divine feminine force – nature, and their quest as an universal initiatory formula. As such, we can all strive to emulate it, and set out on a heroic journey ourselves. In this way, the hero in exile is a symbol of the soul: the divinity of the human soul being disguised in physical matter – a spiritual being in exile in the world of becoming, which in its natural state is unaware of its true, spiritual nature, which in the myths ar symbolizes by the quest to strange lands, or the heroes’ lack of knowledge about their divine patronage. Our job, are we to seek out the heroic initiation, is thus to travel to the edges of the known and confront the “dark forces” of our own minds and the external world. This passing over the threshold from the safety of the home and into the unstable borderlands can here be seen as a metaphor for transcending the limitation placed upon us, to conquer our own, often limited, notions of who we are. To grow through challenges. To willingly undergo hardship and seek out what frightens us, in order to extract over divine essence, capable of transcending the limitations of mind and body. It is that undertaking that invokes the aid of the goddess of initiation. The incantation that summons her is the prayer of heroic labour. The imperative we are left with is thus to travel to the precipices of our selves, to confront the unabalanced forces of our selves and the world, as then await the aid of maiden with the mead.
- In several versions of the myth, Regin the blacksmith forges Sigurd’s sword from the broken shards of his father’s blade, which inspired Tolkien’s epos: Andúril, Aragorn’s sword, is forged from the splinters of Narsil, the broken blade of his ancestor Isildur.
- The word jötun is notoriously mistransalted as “giant”. The Old Norse word does not in any way denote grandness of size. The word is derives from proto-germanic eotunaz, which is cognate to modern words for consumption, such as English “eat” and German “essen”. The word itself thus means “consumption” or “devouring”, and an apt English rendition of jötun would be “devourer”.
About the author
Henrik Lysøe - Norse Tradition
Norse Tradition is a Norwegian non-profit organization working to promote and convey the rich Norse spiritual tradition. We regularly host lectures, private training and rituals, and retreats centered around seasonal celebrations. We work according to a reconstructive method based on Indo-European syncretism. This means that in order to better understand the Norse heritage and tradition, we see it in the light of its roots in the proto-Indo-European culture.
We do not practice historical reenactment, nor do we intend to invent a modern spiritual practice spiced with Norse words and symbols; we transmit a living tradition. All lectures and rites by Norse Tradition are founded on recognized academia or historical sources of Norse, Vedic, Anglo-Saxon, Greco-Roman, or other Indo-European origin. We are thus not innovators; what we teach and practice has ancient roots.